Making data relevant – the biggest challenge for M4D and the SDGs?

Making data relevant – the biggest challenge for M4D and the SDGs?

While a great deal of work and energy is going into the achievement of the SDGs, there is very little data-driven accountability on how these are actually being implemented – especially in the form of direct feedback from those communities directly affected by initiatives designed to attain the SDGs.

Take an example related to SDG 16 which is about Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – particularly in reference to ‘building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’ and ‘ensur[ing] responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.’ While working on a project in Kenya to explore the role of open data in tax justice, we realised that many activities focussed on making data transparent – whether its citizens are being able to make informed decisions about how to access services; or whether the governments and private sector are opening their data for accountability purposes. But in many respects this theory of change rests on assumptions that transparent data alone will lead to change.

We collect the same amount of data every 2 days as we did from the beginning of time to 2003, but we still don’t have transparent institutions. That’s because ultimately the question is not just about the data itself, how we collect it or the quantity of it – it’s really about how we use it. Power, politics, context all have to play a role if we really are committed to achieving the SDGs. I heard a statistic that 80% of open data sets are unusable. This sort of insight is motivating the open data movement and has started to shift from the breadth of data available, to asking more questions about the depth of data and its usability. How we get from data to information is what's important to ensure it is quality, relevance and whether it’s appropriate – in turn determining the extent to when it is actionable.

Perhaps we can look to software development for some ideas. There, good practice is to use something like GitHub to enable a fast, flexible, and collaborative development process, with notes accompanying and explaining any code which is built. So do we need a Github for data? Without meaning to open up a can of worms that is open data standards, but there should at least some explanatory information to accompany datasets with an explanation about the context in which it was collected, how it has been organised and interpretations attached to certain categories.  Much like what Oxfam has started to do with our data deposit guidelines:

Making data easier to understand with an accompanying instruction manual is one thing, but who are the audiences using this data and do they even know that they are audiences? Do tax justice activists fully exploit the role of data in their advocacy?

A further trend in the data accountability space is to look at the audiences of data -it’s not only governments, NGOs and the private sector who are drivers of data. Mobile technology is ensuring citizens and civil society groups are able to create, lead and take part in civic activism and civic spaces. Take the “Tweeting Chief” in Kenya @chiefkariuki, who not only uses Twitter and SMS to mobilise citizens to help put out fires, but has picked relevant SDGs for his community and is insisting on upward accountability by reporting on their process. We increasingly see these individual civil to public collective civic action.

A key activity has to be lowering the barrier to entry by getting citizens (especially citizen journalists) trained in data science skills. Of course we are concerned that data isn’t transparent or usable without its context, but in some respects we just have to get started and use the data which is being opened up at an incredibly fast pace to demonstrate this fact. Community driven data advocacy work is a crucial and often under resourced.

If we cracked the gap in usefulness of data, the skills to use it and the audiences of data, we might get closer to promoting accountability in services and data-driven decision-making. This could in turn contribute to the effective delivery and monitoring all of the SDGs. Mobiles are one of the most distributed communications channels (combining high computing power and metrics about how people use services and financial transactions) in increasing number of pockets. This facilitates the speed and accuracy in what we collect and how we act upon it. But rather than asking the question ‘what can mobiles do for the SDGs?’, perhaps we should be focusing on cleaning up our use of data to build a picture of what the accountability gaps really are.    

Amy O’Donnell is ICT in Programme Lead at Oxfam GB

Pictured: Yaya Ndonky Soumané, 24, Casamance, Senegal. Yaya managed to buy a second-hand phone in Niamey so he can keep in touch with his family. Photo Credit: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam 

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